Sophia Narrett (@sophianarrett) is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She recently participated in NSFW: FEMALE GAZE at the Museum of Sex in New York and Stranger than Paradise at the RISD Museum in Providence. We were very excited to show a few of her pieces in No Vacancy II last April. We met up with her before No Vacancy to learn more about her work, process, and views on heteronormative romances, power dynamics, and reality T.V.
This September she is showing with Erin Riley and Kay Healy in Narrative Horizons at the Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. She will also be exhibiting in Intimate Lines: Drawing with Thread at the Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey.
Can you tell me about this small piece?
It's based on a scene from The Bachelor (Worries). This image depicts a scene where the contestants worry that Nick (the bachelor) is going to quit the process. Nick has been on The Bachelorette twice and also on Bachelor in Paradise. He proposed to multiple people and was rejected each time. In this image, he is in the corner of the picture explaining his feelings to them. It's not important that the viewer recognizes that the image is from The Bachelor. If anything, it’s more that I found the women’s gestures compelling...
Wow, they are all so concerned!
I find the situation fascinating. The show would have us believe that they are all so into this guy where maybe in the real world one of them might find him attractive. What are the odds that 25 women would be so immediately into one person? It would never happen. There isn’t anything that special about him - especially when comparatively you hear the women’s backstories. I am captivated by the intensity of their feelings though, even their desperation in some cases. I don’t have a thesis or stance on it; it’s a feeling that I’ve experienced (in different situations), so it’s compelling to see this collective desire and anxiety captured in a reality tv narrative, and to watch how artifice and editing are used to frame and present feelings. It’s somehow real even within the framework of the staged show.
How much do you think the season was fake?
It seems like a few of the women have real feelings for him. Maybe others are swept up in the experience. And of course what with the way the show is edited, and how certain interviews are framed or scripted, what we end up seeing makes the final product much closer to fiction than documentary. Still it seems like there was an intense emotional reality for the participants, whether that was due to the experience of being on the show or the personal interactions or both. Which is fascinating in its own right. In a way, I think it is really beautiful to want something (the romance, the happy ending) so badly - even if it might not be real. And the reality TV framing of this, the melodrama, perhaps rings true in the way that exaggeration is sometimes a genuine way to communicate something very intense.
My work is always about love. It’s endlessly interesting to me. I consume it. I know these narratives are artificial, but I love them at the same time. I think most people have that guilty pleasure. The Bachelor/The Bachelorette has 10 years of successful programming, but only a few real long withstanding relationships as a result of the show. No one cares about the outcome in the long run, it's more about chasing the happy ending than what that life together looks like.
What is your overall process?
I always start with the narrative, usually based on my own experiences or thoughts, and sometimes influenced by TV or fiction. Then I build a photoshop collage to use as a reference image to embroider from, using images gathered online or screenshots as the language to express the narrative. In Worries, there wasn’t a lot of collaging, but normally my reference images are more involved. Usually there are 100-150 layers composited in Photoshop. For the larger pieces, I’ll map them out digitally and plan for a week or more before sewing.
What other narratives are in your work?
Two years ago I made a project called This Meant Nothing that told a love story with a sad ending between two women. They were introduced at a rose ceremony (The Rose Ceremony), and the story continued from there. It had nothing to do with The Bachelor per se, but a rose ceremony was the perfect visual shorthand for a heteronormative, artificial space, which also was somehow a breeding ground for desire, even if it was not a place that promoted genuine love, it promoted a genuine desire for it. As the story went on the women left this space for a garden scene that embodied hope and flirtation (Stars Align), and eventually separated over a disturbing miscommunication (Something Went Wrong and Along the Vein).
In this recent piece (VR Experience Option 1: Date Night) there are two nude women wearing VR glasses. I was thinking about double dates and creating a world where everyone had a date except for this one girl who is crying and peeing in the bushes. I was thinking about how double dates are depicted in media. There is this thing which happens in romances (like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey) where your best friend or sibling ends up dating your partner’s best friend or sibling.
Are these pieces critiques on romance?
Not at all. There is a sense of conflict, and sometimes humor, but, first and foremost, these are things I feel attracted to. It is very important after I make the image that I ask, “What does it mean? What are the implications of this? How does this relate to the world? Is this perpetuating problematic things?” Sometimes it is. That’s part of it. There is anxiety in desire. There is a sense that you can't control your desires - your most genuine fantasies are not what you necessarily stand for. There is so much pressure put on women to be a certain way, look a certain way. This is something I struggle with, but then again all my images are about beauty, desire for it, and the fantasy that surrounds it. The work is about celebrating this but also simultaneously feeling sick about it. I hope people project their own narratives onto the images, and that this results in a conversation. That is one of the best parts of working with representational images - they gives ground for others to project onto. This aspect of projection is what started my interest in doing tarot cards.
Can you describe your Tarot Cards series ?
My larger pieces have more involved narratives, the tarot cards are more iconic, isolated moments or feelings. They can exist together or separately. I enjoy how they bounce off each other, and how narratives build as they line up.
What tarot cards are these?
They aren't traditional cards. They are invented emotions or things, which are hopefully specific yet also universal, in the same way a tarot image is.
Do you want to make a whole deck?
I do! That has been in the back of my mind.
How did the series start?
I started making miniatures the size of playing cards. I had made a narrative with nine larger pieces separated by three different chapters called Early in the Game. It wasn't a linear narrative but an evolution of three emotional stages. I made the miniatures to delineate each section and summarize them. After that work I started thinking about miniature symbolic icons, and the structure of how tarot cards ask one to use images to make observations about their own life, and the tarot cards came from there…
I love the moments of decay - where it feels like the story starts to unravel.
I like that material takes over at the edges. I don't plan how that is going to be. It just sort of happens. Embroidery is fun because I am so literal and narrative, I don't think materially, but the thread forces me to let the material take over. Yes, I love how those moments enter back into the physical world. I like them to be these little reminders that each piece is an object as well as an image, and the physicality of it is related to the intensity of the desire and the emotional beauty, all of that is part of the piece.
Are there other places you pull inspiration from other than reality TV?
Image-wise, I primary pull from the internet, specifically Tumblr. I love finding images of people doing weird things. Narrative-wise, it always comes from my own life and emotions. Even when I pull from reality TV, the content always stands for my own emotional experience. It’s not about reality television (although it does also become a commentary). The pop culture images are a language to speak through.
I found out about your work through Cecilia Salama. And I loved the show she curated at 315 Gallery that was about romance, and how it has changed in the digital age and how courtship has changed. How do you think romance has changed?
It’s hard to even begin to quantify how digital communication has changed romance, in some ways it seems like social media, texting and online dating mediate communication, objectify people, and isolate us from each other. But they can also be tools for self exploration and connecting to others in deep ways. It's a case by case thing, but definitely a question I’m exploring. I love hearing about people's dating stories. When I have a studio visit, I usually try to talk about dating and relationships. The second I find out someone is online dating, or breaking up, or in a long term relationship, I just want to hear about that. Romantic interactions can be so beautiful, exciting, interesting, endlessly fascinating, and strange. It brings a sense of drama into life (not in a bad way). I think a lot about love and how it gives purpose to life. It can be transcendent. There is so much boredom and pain in the world, and love can take you out of that - whether it be deep and transformative or just a crush. (A crush can be a positive, escapist thing!)
Do you feel like these perpetuated and mediated personifications fed to (mostly women) like Nicholas Sparks romance novels and normative romantic comedies are bad for romance?
True romance is about connecting with another human in a way that is transcendent and gives your life purpose. That is rare and magical. It’s going to be idiosyncratic and specific to the two people involved. When you watch these representations or read it in Nicholas Sparks you’re seeing shorthand for this, symbols of this. Its simplified, and often problematic and limiting attitudes are thrown in. These are staged versions of things people really want. Because people hunger for that connection so intensely, it can be pleasurable or escapist to watch these narratives, to get a slight dose of this magic, even if it's like a synthetic piece of candy. But it can get confusing. It is easy to lose sight of what is real if you over value the symbols. There is nothing wrong with wanting these things, or mimicking elements of these personifications in real life as long as you approach with some acknowledgment that it in a way that is like role-playing. As long as you maintain awareness, you can dip in and out of this type of fantasy and others. When you end up pursuing something that you do not genuinely want, or define your own needs or identity entirely in relation to these media representations, or when this normative romantic story is the only one defining your fantasy, that is when it gets limiting. I do wish there were more varied representations of what a healthy or desirable relationship can look like, how it can evolve.
That makes so much sense. Sometimes it's fun to play the damsel and other times it not...
It's all roleplay. Sometimes you can have roleplay without real love, and there can be value there too.
Your work seems multifaceted. It's about romance and gender roles but simultaneously empowering women...
Yes, totally. In places where women are in more objectified positions (or seemingly powerless positions), it is always (to me) that they are choosing to be there and enjoying it, but that is not how everyone reads it. It’s good to talk about that.
All of these are done by hand, right? Do you ever play with machines?
I did two pieces where I tried using digital embroidery.
How did you feel about it?
The machines never really stuck with me. I tried making backgrounds with them. The process is more like screen printing (thinking in flat shapes), and I don’t think like that. Also I enjoy working with my hands. Embroidery is really fun. Its sculptural. You are crafting. I don’t sit down and think, “How can I make this more accurate?”.
What are you working on now?
I’m just at the beginning of a new project that describes a passionate, if slightly toxic and confusing, friday night between two lovers. What do you have coming up? I’m participating in a group exhibition curated by Mark Murphy called Figurative Futures at 101/Exhibit in Los Angeles that just opened July 21st. I also currently have work in NSFW: FEMALE GAZE curated by Marina Garcia Vasquez and Lissa Rivera at the Museum of Sex in New York, and in Stranger Than Paradise curated by Dominic Molon at the RISD Museum in Providence. This September I am excited to show with Erin M. Riley and Kay Healy in a project called Narrative Horizons, curated by Gabrielle Lavin Suzenski at the The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, and also to be a part of Intimate Lines: Drawing With Thread curated by Carol Eckert at the Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey.